There is a brief discussion of police brutality in this episode around 16 minutes in.
In episode 14 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Keisha Sitney, discussed include:
- Why leaders need to be role models for their staff and lead by example
- Why organizations need to start with individuals when working on equity
- How to build the leadership capacity of people who haven’t traditionally been promoted to leadership roles
- Why it is important to not just teach people of color to be like “traditional” white leaders but encourage them develop their own leadership style
- How professionals focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion experience profound fatigue in continually educating people about racism and other forms of oppression.
Keisha Sitney is the Chief People Officer for The Y in Central Maryland and the founder of Golden Key Coaching. She works to ensure the people strategies and resources support and match the strategic priorities of the organization. Keisha is an executive leader who has been with the Y for 30 years, both at the national and regional levels. With in-depth experience in coaching, talent management, strategic visioning and planning, and facilitation, Keisha has served in operational roles at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, led the national multicultural leadership development movement as well as served as an internal consultant for C-Suite leaders from Ys across the United States. She holds a Master's Degree in Organization Development from American University and a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Howard University.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Keisha, great to have you on the podcast.
Keisha Sitney: Thank you. Thanks for having me, I’m really honored to be here.
Carol: I want to start out by asking, just to give people some context, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you and how would you describe your work?
Keisha: Well, I have worked for Y the organization for [30 years and I’m] celebrating my 30th year there. And being only 35, it's hard to fathom that I've been in that place 30 years. But in all seriousness, I really enjoy helping people to reach their potential. I think that I started off working with young people, and directing childcare centers, and doing team programs and things, and after decades of operations, I really found that my passion is for the people, the associates, the leaders that are doing the work and helping them make sure that they feel equipped, that they feel energized, that they have all the tools and resources, that they have the confidence to do the work that they're supposed to do. Nonprofit work can be grueling, and sometimes we may give and forget that we have to also pour in to ourselves. So that's a part of my why is making sure that people are able to pour into themselves?
Carol: Yeah. What are some ways that you help people do that?
Keisha: Well, I think that a lot of it is in coaching and reflecting and going through and finding ways to reflect on situations: ‘how did I respond to this, how am I going to do this differently in the future?’ I think that that emotional intelligence and self-awareness is really key. We can get so caught up in the doing of the work, and I find myself telling leaders all the time through our organization: the work is not just the work, it's not just the tactics and the processes. It's how we get things done. It's who we work with in order to move things forward. I think that a part of that is how we are aware of our own selves and how we impact that. So it's important, that critical part of leadership, in my opinion.
Carol: I don't know if leaders are always aware that the folks around them, their staff, are paying very close attention to everything that they're doing. And oftentimes, leaders are relying on what they're saying or what they're communicating in an email, but what they're doing, that is always more powerful, for people to watch behavior and, start to unpack, and doing that reflection so that you can think about, ‘okay, well, these are the things that happened.’ someone's telling me what they saw and that they made some interpretation and it maybe wasn’t what I intended, but that was the impact it had. So it's really key to always remember that, as a leader, you're in the spotlight
Keisha: Yeah, you're accountable, regardless of your intent. Maybe the impact is still being impacted. When you're mentioning leaders and people looking up to you or watching, how do we take off? How do we use it, how do we sharpen the saw? How do we develop ourselves? We tend to say, ‘Oh, we're going to send them to training or we're going to make sure you use your leave,’ but then, ‘Oh, well, no, I'm so important, I've got to work. I've got to be here’ or, ‘call me, I know I'm on vacation, but I'll still be a participant in that meeting.’ And it's risky to, to be the person that says ‘I'm scheduled for leave during that time. Can we reschedule that? I really want to be a part of the conversation, but I've scheduled this time and it's really important to my family.’ Not to say that as a leader, sometimes you don't need to just be there. If it's something that's come up, that's an emergency, but every emergency isn't an emergency. So I think that leading by example and taking care of ourselves and our families is really critical. And it's something that I constantly work on. I can't say I've got it down pat, but it's something that I strive to improve every year.
Carol: Yeah, those are hard boundaries to keep, even when we know that's in our belief, I know that's certainly what I believe and I try to do for myself and then to demonstrate to others. And I have the luxury of being an independent consultant. I used to give the explanation of why I'm on leave. Now I simply say that I'm not available. It's a little easier for me to do that without someone having access to my calendar, et cetera, but it's still hard to maintain those boundaries, and even if you're working, just keep some time for thinking and for analysis, for stepping back and not being in meeting after meeting after meeting as leaders are so often in. Especially now, in COVID, the day can never end sometimes. But I think being aware of what really is an emergency, when is it really critical, and when is it not so that you have those reserves when those emergencies come up.
Keisha: And one thing that I try to remember is, as women, and leaders, and moms, sometimes there's a thought you're supposed to be super-woman or super-mom, and I don't try to ascribe to that. I try to remember that, I'm juggling a lot of balls, but. Every ball is not a glass wall. So, there might be some things that I can let drop and they're going to bounce back and I'll just pick them up wherever they are. Or maybe I can pass it to someone on my team or something like that. But things like my children, or my husband, or my health, those are glass balls that I can't get back. If I drop them, they're shattered. That's been helpful for me to prioritize those things that'll be fine until next week, but this is the priority and takes precedent, so I need to calm myself.
Carol: I love that image because we so often hear ‘I'm juggling a lot of things,’ but remembering that all of those balls that you're juggling don't have the same impact and are not all precious in the same way. You don’t have to be the one juggling all of those things, and you can pull other people in, help them grow by giving them a stretch assignment that you may be in charge of, and maybe it can really help their development.
Keisha: Exactly and people want to help. They want to come through for you. So I think it isn't for us to share those opportunities with others and prioritize for ourselves.
Carol: So, part of your work has been working on building a more multicultural increasing equity within the Y. What would you say has been missing in past efforts to address equity in the nonprofit sector? I mean, there are a lot of organizations that are trying to address that in the outside of their organizations, but I'm talking about inside organizations.
Keisha: We have to start with ourselves internally. If it can't be just a process or a policy, or procedures, we have to start as individuals. We come to work with our own beliefs, the way that we are raised and how we see things. And we are all born with biases and it impacts how we show up and impact how we treat others at work. What we value, who we value. Knowing where people's ideals come from and why they make the decisions they make, or the way they behave. It's helpful in us being more empathetic to one another. I feel like the conversations that are being had nowadays, with the pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19, and the epidemic of racism, people aren't able to ignore it. I think having these uncomfortable conversations, leaning into the discomfort, and committing to doing it again and again, is what's going to make the difference.
I've led multicultural leadership-development efforts at a national level for our organization. And there were some times where I felt like we were just teaching the diverse leader how to be within this larger structure that is not necessarily welcome. So, teach you - as a person of color - to straighten your hair, to get in, get the interview, say the right things, and do all those things. But how do we change the system so that it doesn't expect me to conform in order to be successful, that I can be valued for. However, if I choose to wear my hair this way, and I know that sometimes it seems like a small thing, but those small things, they just add up and there seem to be many ways where, as a woman of color, I felt like I haven't always been able to bring my whole self to work. So I do think that it's important that we allow folks to bring themselves, and their culture, and their beliefs, to work and not have to hide who they are.
Those conversations are key. And in that leadership development that you're talking about, it's essentially like we're refining code switching or refining, basically teaching whiteness. I feel like that's probably replicated across not only programs within organizations, but many, many programs that are offered as not capacity-building, but just different levels. So that's essentially what the program is about. How is that really helping us get to equity. We need to teach white people to be okay with people who are different. I know that there's a lot of books and things talking about being anti-racist. But we have to continue to just work on dismantling the systems. It's not just teaching one group how to be, or how to respond. It's educating ourselves on how things got to be the way they are. And they didn't just start with us here. Here's the impact of those things, here's how this group might've benefited from these laws and these systems. And then here's how this group may not have benefited or how they might've been kept back as a result of those. And then getting people to make change, how do we bring it to the forefront and then start to dismantle it. But it's in the long haul. It was built over time and it won't be dismantled overnight either.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting. I was listening to one of Brené Brown's podcasts, she now has two, and I'm not remembering who the person that she was talking to was, but the person she was interviewing was talking about how, when organizations try to start working on diversity, equity, and inclusion. They'll often go to the policies, the practices, and she described that, as the transactional part of the work. And that was interesting to me - because so often it ends up being posed as somewhat of an either/or of either you're doing transactional, or you're doing transformational and what she was saying, which I found so interesting was you have to have both. So you have to deal with all those practices and systems and how that's all embedded in the code of how we work. That's not enough, it's not sufficient. You also have to work at the relational level and then other work. We're trying to come at this from a conscious part of the brain that actually is not triggering a lot of this. That so much is about the unconscious bias that we've been taught over years. And how that's embedded in our limbic system.
Keisha: It is. We have to do something to consciously stop it and be aware that, ‘okay, this is what I'm thinking.’ This is what I'm hearing. This is what I'm saying, what I'm replicated. I found that one-on-one conversations have also been very, very helpful with - and I can't speak for every person who's like me - but I can tell you how this impacts me. I can tell you how this impacts my children. I can tell you how this impacts my family, and it's exhausting to share. There have been times when I'm like, ‘I'm tired of educating everyone else. I'm just going to do me.’ I've got to preserve myself.
Diversity fatigue is a real thing. I’ve found relationships that are important to me and I've really tried to develop those, whether it's professionally or personally, but by sharing, this is the impact of this. When I hear of another police killing a black person, I think about how that could be my son who is 17 now, who's 6’ 4” and it could be my daughter, who's 17 and just a black, young woman. It could be me, it could be my husband. And sharing conversations with folks. One of my colleagues said, that really hit me when you talked about your kids and my kids, because it's always, that's that family over there, but it's like, we have these things in common, but yet our kids can be doing the same exact thing and mine will be killed and Rose’s will not. So I think that that's one way that I've tried to personally make connections with folks and help them to see things in a different light.
Carol: Yeah. I appreciate that. And I appreciate what you're saying, that there are just sometimes when I'm not going to engage. I need to preserve myself.
Keisha: Yeah. I can't always engage in conversations, and it's not always fruitful. There are some folks who, it doesn't matter what you say, and I'm not willing to sacrifice myself for those types of conversations.
Carol: Yeah. And sometimes I find it can be helpful to identify some bright spots, or people who are operating under those same circumstances or constraints, within the same context, but somehow are having better results. In your work, have you encountered some of those bright spots because I think that that's a place to start working from.
Keisha: Yeah. I mean, I've encountered quite a few bright spots. We have a movement of leaders of color throughout the national Y and we call it our multicultural leadership development. It's mentors, coaches, and supports. And we've created safe spaces, similar to the employee resource group models where you have groups of people who may be able to come together and work on policies. You've got the affinity groups, those types of things, but ours is more of a mixture. Not just African-Americans with African-Americans. So you might see African-Americans, Hispanic, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders. There you might have indigenous folks of which we need to improve our numbers versus nationally as an organization with regards to leadership, reflecting the communities we serve. But for those of us who are members of those communities, finding the commonalities and being able to support one another, educate one another, and to be with one another, and developing our own cultural competence, just because you're a person of color doesn't mean that you're going to be culturally competent as well.
The things that we're asking from other groups that we should be able to model those things as well. So it's definitely been a great support system. And we've seen a lot of folks who've been able to engage and advance their careers within our organization. In connecting the dots where they're not just at one small organization, that they can be connected to our larger network of organization. So really a lot of success there. We have seen some increases in our numbers nationally of leaders that are at the top level, in the C-suite CEO position that are of color. But then we've also had some challenges that go on the other side of it. We've done a lot more work on bias and undoing institutional racism. Anti-racism work, a lot more equity work and looking at the systems. And I don't think that that's something that, as national non-profits, a lot of us do. Recognizing that we are a part of those systems that we talk about, a part of this country. We have the same kind of history as we've evolved in these 175 years that our country has evolved. So, I think we're doing a lot and there are a lot of folks who are committed to it. There's much more to be done.
Carol: Sure. Sure. And for the Y particularly, you're a federated system and that can - I'm guessing - make it particularly challenging, but there are many other national organizations that are set up that same way. Can you just briefly say what a federated system is, and then maybe talk about how some of this work has either been able to move forward or, or been challenging.
Keisha: Sure. We're federated meaning each organization, each Y, is its own independent 501 c3. You're all members of the national YMCA, and there are some guidelines that we need to adhere to in order to be a member. But we each have our own boards of directors, our own financial leaders, those kinds of things. And we can make our own decisions. There are a lot of benefits to that because the work that's happening in each community is different. So we don't have to be bound by some national perspective or priorities that are not appropriate for our community. The benefits of being a larger, federated organization, our brand is something that's recognizable that we work hard to have some things that we say are in common and that when you go to a Y, no matter where you are, that there should be these types of things. For us, that healthy, living youth development and social responsibility are three of our big core areas that we do our work.
Carol: So there was a second part to that question. I'm just also wondering, with that federated system, there's also the autonomy of each organization. So, trying to move forward, something at the national level may take longer because you essentially have to persuade or pull in every organization within the system.
Keisha: We're a very diverse country. We have, in some ways, a lot of division and something that we all believe in. And then there are some areas where we're not all on the same side and our organization is not any different from that. so for us to all rally around the same thing, it is not always very easy. It can be painstaking, but I know that there are some things we do believe in equity and inclusion as a national organization. We believe in the safety of children and young people. And there's just certain things that are no-brainers for us. But how that gets implemented in each area is sometimes very different and can be difficult. I'm not speaking on behalf of our organization nationally. It is an area that I've seen that, when we’ve pulled together, it's very impactful.
Carol: You've actually developed your own leadership model. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what you've found wanting and other models that spurred you to create your own?
Keisha: Sure! Thank you for asking about it. It's interesting because I've coached leaders for many, many years, and also had a lot of focus on learning and development. I feel like we tend to highlight leaders who seem as if they arrived; as if they just showed up and they were perfect, these flawless leaders and I've done presentations, and I've done a little riff on Beyonce’s flawless music. We don't really highlight leaders who mess things up or who are learning. When I see someone who's in a position that's at a high level I think, ‘man, how do I get there?’ I don't hear about the times that they failed four times, that they were rejected for six other positions that they've gone for, you just get to see where they've shown up. So I really try to encourage my colleagues to share some of their failures, some of their flaws so to speak. The model is that leaders are flawed and they are not perfect, but we do learn from things. So the [idea is that] we're failing forward. Everyone makes mistakes. And how do we utilize those to propel ourselves and our learning, or whatever it is that we learned from those failures. Then maybe we prevent some of the failures in the future, or maybe they'll be a little smaller. But recognizing that all of us will fail at some point and how we fail forward? the lesson for lifelong learners that we constantly have to sharpen that saw, we have to learn more. Part of it is reflecting and getting better, learning about what we do and how we can improve, learning about our field, our craft, just continuing to [learn]. There's no point where you've just arrived so we need to always be lifelong learners. The A is for authentic! I think authenticity in leadership is very important for us. If you want people to follow you, you want them to trust you. People don't want to follow someone who doesn't seem genuine. And a part of that authenticity is [admitting] that, you’re not always right. I may not be perfect, but sharing more of our why, our story, why we do things or what's motivating our decisions and things like that. Sharing a little bit of a vulnerability. So if we were to talk about Brenè Brown, vulnerability is just super important. So I think that that's all tied to authenticity. And then the W is for work. You can't be a leader without doing the work. You’ve gotta roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. I do believe in working smarter, not harder. I'm not going to try and take the hard way, but in leadership, you definitely have to put in the work wherever it's needed. That's my model: leaders of LAW.
Carol: I love it. I think it was one thing - I don't think much goes viral on LinkedIn - but this one probably did where someone actually wrote their failure resume. Yeah, so when you write your bio for when you're speaking or whatnot, you rarely include: “and right before I got that job, I was the runner-up for four of them.” [You don’t include] where you were laid off here, or where you got restructured out of that job at that. We're resilient. Those are the things that we need to reiterate that, especially with this generation coming up and I hate to sound like the old person in the room, but you want folks to know it's okay, you gotta be resilient. We don't know what's going to happen next, then COVID, and what this next iteration will be, but we will band together. We will be resilient. We'll make it through and figure it out.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think folks have a lot more resilience than they realize, and it's part of it. It's looking back and seeing, ‘that kind of sucked at that time, but I picked myself back up and got back on the horse’ or whatever and [you need to] try it again. And I think just the way our brains are wired, we learn so much more from those failures than we do from all those successes. So, we have such a negativity bias that those are definitely more memorable. But then not only keep it as our own private learning, but I think what you're saying is, for leaders to actually share those with the folks that they're working with so that folks really know that it is okay. We don't want to make a lot of mistakes. Nobody wants to make mistakes. But on the other hand, if there's a culture where making mistakes is punished, then it just has so much impact on folks willing to take risks. That has to be there for innovation [so it] can really have a chilling effect. So yeah, pretending that you're perfect, it's exhausting for the person who wants to work with that anyway. It's not realistic. It doesn't have to be perfect. We're not expecting it to be our final product, but you're going to put this bad boy out, see how it works, and we'll fix it. We'll continue to hone in on it.
Carol: So, you allow people to be okay with, like you said, innovating and we don't want to make huge mistakes, but we know that's a part of the process. Then we can build our confidence in knowing that it's a part of the process that I may stumble.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think, also for organizations to look at who's allowed to make those mistakes within the organization and who it has higher consequences for. And I'm sure in most cases there's probably already research that shows this, but the more male and white you are, probably the more you can get away with. Yup. Very much so. And I didn't necessarily see it myself. Being in HR, coming from operations in so many places that I'm really drawn to making sure that we're consistent with how we handle those situations. Like you said, are we doing the same thing if the person is white and male that we would have done if they were young and female, or a person of color, or something like that. It’s super important that we have that consistency.
Carol: Yeah, well I want to shift focus a little bit. At the end of every episode, I do a little game where I ask a random icebreaker question. So, what is one family tradition that you'd like to carry on in the future?
Keisha: I created a family tradition of cookie baking for the holidays, and I'm not a person who cooks nor bakes. So it was interesting for me to come up with that, but I just love the idea of my children coming together, and having other cousins over, and us getting flour all over the place and making cookies from scratch. It's just a great way to set the holiday season off. It's a big mess, and every year I say, ‘why am I doing this?’ but I'm really trying to figure out how to do it during COVID. I'm like, ‘okay, pass out flour and it could be making an idea, or you do something via zoom. It's definitely one of the traditions that I hope my children pass on and that they continue to do it.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I hope I get a box of cookies.
Keisha: You may not want them! They've gotten better over the years. Like I said, I'm not a baker but, fail forward! I've gotten much better, but I've been failing forward for some years.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much.
Keisha: Thank you. Appreciate you, Carol. Good to talk to you.
In episode 13 of Mission Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Peter Lane, discussed include:- How to bring health and wellness training to organizational consulting
Peter Lane is an organizational consultant with more than 20 years of experience. He is also a National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC) trained at the Mayo Clinic. Peter works with individuals and teams that are committed to ongoing learning, reflection, and making positive change for themselves and their organizations. Before becoming a wellness coach and consultant, Peter worked for 18 years as director of programs at the Institute for Conservation Leadership
After working with many nonprofit leaders over the years who were experiencing the negative physical and emotional effects of burnout, he decided that focusing on wellness in the workplace is an important strategy for how he can contribute to the success of nonprofit organizations. Peter serves on the board of directors of the Reve Kandale Foundation. He received a Bachelor’s degree from Clark University and a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Peter. Thanks for coming on Mission: Impact! Great to have you on.
Peter Lane: Thanks for having me!
Carol: So I just want to start out by asking you what drew you to the work that you do? What really motivates you and what would you describe as your ‘why’?
Peter: Oh, such a great question. It's something that many of us ask ourselves as there are shifts at different times in our lives, but for me I would say that I've always worked in the non-profit field, so that's really anchored me in community-based organizations and people coming together to solve problems in their community. And more recently, I became certified as a health and wellness coach, partly from my experience working with nonprofit leaders and partly my own interest. So for me that's been really exciting and part of my ‘why’ is how I can bring my health and wellness background to non-profit organizations and leaders. That's something I'm still working on and figuring out how to do and how to incorporate it into the consulting and coaching work that I do. Health and wellness coaching is a new field in and of itself, so it's an exciting time to be working in both spaces.
Carol: Yeah, and it's certainly something that's so needed in the field. I've had a couple of different people on and we've talked about the whole problem of burnout with nonprofit leaders and how hard it is to do things around self care, and maintaining those boundaries. But I'm curious, when this episode is going to be released, it'll be just about the time of year when lots of people are thinking about the end of the year, making resolutions for changes, I'm starting at the individual level level. What are some things that really help individuals start to shift their behavior towards wellness?
Peter: Well, in some ways, when working with the organizations, we try to help them create a shared vision organizationally about where they want to go. And in many ways it's the same for individuals. People do look for a health and wellness coach for a variety of reasons, and often it's something like, ‘oh, my doctor told me I needed to lose weight.’ So that's the presenting issue, but the challenge is to work with those individuals to get a sense of how their life will be different? How do they want life to be? Really helping them think about and craft a vision statement for their own wellness. That's really the starting point along with helping them do a little self-examination around their values. What's important to them, their strengths, what are the capacities there that are going to help them make a behavior change? Also thinking about when they have faced similar situations, and what helped them accomplish their goals around that. There's that sort of self-learning along the way, and that's where we usually start: helping people get grounded in who they are and where they want to go.
Carol: It makes a lot of sense. Stepping back and starting with that vision, which people often want to do, but without some structure or process to walk them through it, it's a thing that you might get around to doing, maybe sometime next week. And committing to a coach, you're then helping them take those steps that started helping them. It might've already been there, it's probably been there, but not necessarily clear about what that vision is. I'm guessing that it's more around all the things that you don't want.
Peter: Yeah, for some people, it really is a challenge to dig deep, to think about what they want their health and wellness to be different beyond wanting to exercise more or wanting to lose weight, or wanting to have a more balanced life, or whatever it is. That's buried deep. And helping people bring that out often relates to things around their family, or how they want to age, or sort of different things that they might be able to do in their life. And that can be a very regulatory process that really connects them to the work ahead, making the behavior changes.
Carol: You talk about those behavior changes, because I feel like we've read a million magazine articles about 10 steps to exercising more regularly or whatnot, but what does the evidence show in terms of what really helps people take positive action in terms of making those behavior changes that they want?
Peter Lane: Well, one that we've just been talking about is connecting to that deeper purpose and vision. You and I think about the same way with organizations: what are the smaller steps that they can take to get there and to build confidence around those steps? So when I work with somebody in health and wellness coaching, I always say that there's gotta be setbacks. That's actually part of the process, and actually, setbacks are good because you can learn from them and that will help you as you continue setting realistic goals and helping people think about what in their environment will support them and making those behavior changes. Those are the kinds of things that are gonna support people as they go along their journey.
Carol: I think setbacks are inevitable in a process like that. So what are some things that you've seen people learn from those setbacks?
Peter Lane: I think the biggest one is — I guess it's self-love, being kind to oneself. People beat themselves up. We’re our own harshest critics, and so one of the biggest lessons is: it's okay. Don’t go down the guilt path or the beat yourself up path. I see that as the big lesson. People begin to understand how the people around them — most often a partner or spouse — how their interactions and their behavior together impacts their ability to make those behavior changes. So it's occurred to me — and I haven't done this yet — but I've thought about doing couples’ health and wellness coaching, because it really is a family system. It really does have an impact on what your relationship is with the others around you.
Carol: That's so key because I think that too often in our culture, we think about the individual and we don't think about the whole context that the individuals are living in. Just that first round of who's in their immediate family, who they’re living with, how is that going to impact what they're going to be able to do? Even as we're coming into winter, my husband’s gotten into biking regularly and that’s the thing that he's been able to do most consistently in terms of exercise. I'm not going to be inviting anyone from Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner so we decided — or I suggested — that we should just make the table small. We'll get rid of the extra leaves that are in the table and take half the dining room and set up your bike with a trainer that enables you to do it inside, just knowing that he had suggested that he’d do it in the basement. I knew he would never go into a dreary basement in the morning when it's cold, it's gotta be somewhere inviting. There has to be that context around it to make it possible to want to get up.
Peter Lane: Yeah, that's a great example. You start thinking about how you can make changes or shift things in my environment that will actually help me make those behavior changes.
Carol: Yeah, because the last thing you want to do is buy yet another piece of equipment that becomes a very expensive clothing drying rack.
Peter Lane: Absolutely, yes.
Carol: So it's easy for people to see how health and wellness impacts, or relates to the individual. You say you talked about it in connection with organizations and with nonprofits. Why would you say that wellness is really important for organizations to think about as well?
Peter Lane: For a while, I was involved in co-leading a leadership development program that involved coaching for the participants. So over the years, I was talking to a lot of people and I would say — it's sort of anecdotal — but often the coaching got around to things like really wanting to spend more time with my family or my kids. I don't have enough time to exercise, that’s why I'm so stressed out. So it was all of these issues that were not related to managing staff or leading staff or boards or fundraising or all of those other issues. It was their personal wellbeing and, at the time, I didn't realize there was such a thing as health and wellness coaching, but what people talked about were things that interested me and I could see how their personal wellbeing was impacting their leadership and their ability to do their job. That really stuck with me. And when I struck out on my own as a consultant, before I hung out the shingle, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted to do. What were things that interested me, what were parts of my work previously that I really enjoyed and gave me satisfaction, and worked with a coach. So I really, I really saw this connection between work and personal life, and taking care of yourself, and how, if you take care of yourself, that gets embedded in the organization. And in my mind, anyway, if we have healthy individuals taking care of themselves, our organizations will be healthier as well. So that led me to the field of health and wellness coaching, and that's my interest. I
Carol: My tagline for this podcast is, “how to be a nonprofit leader without being a martyr to the cause.” And I think what you're talking about is all of that, because it's so easy. In the western world, in the United States particularly, the glorification of overwork is so much there. And then when you add in a cause that you really believe in oftentimes there's always more work than there's capacity to deal with it. It's very easy to get pulled in and not set those boundaries. Not be able to really. And then what you talked about is how that shows up and in terms of that impact, on the individual leader and then how that ripples out through the organization. So when you were coaching those folks, it was around their leadership, and yet it was these ‘personal’ issues that were coming up. How did you see that impacting how they were showing up at work?
Peter Lane: It was in a variety of ways. For example, in leadership there's such a great degree of how you manage yourself and how you use yourself in different situations and the extent to which a leader can be intentional about how they're acting. They can access more information, more of their own personal resources, and act in a more strategic and intentional way. When people are stressed, their ability to do that decreases. So there's that part of it, how they're interacting with others. And I also think — Carol probably in your work too — you see individual leaders and organizations, they really set the tone. Regardless of who's there, they really do set the tone. So leaders who are modeling healthy behaviors that promote wellness for him or herself, that’s also gonna shift the organization. I think we've probably all seen leaders who are running a hundred miles a minute, or over-scheduled and that just creates tension around for others who feel like they have to be running at the same pace because so-and-so is. Those kinds of unhealthy behaviors for individuals can really seep into the organization.
Carol: Have you experienced that at all in your, in your work? All the negative consequences?
Peter: Yes. Which is fine. I mean too often, but I think most of the time it's very well intentioned. Like the person is really dedicated to the cause and they want to see that work done and there's just, there's always more work than could possibly be done. So, in their role as an executive director or someone higher up in the organization, there's a tendency to take on responsibility as well and get isolated from the rest of the organization. For a little bit, I worked at an organization where they still operated under the myth that summers were quiet. Well, we did like half of our leadership programs during the summer. So there was never a break. We went from getting to the annual conference and then it'll be quiet, and we'll get past this thing, and then it'll be good. And it just never stops.
Carol: There's always the next thing. So yeah, I’m wondering if, with organizations that are like, “okay, we're tired of this, we know we're burning people out, we know that we're losing people because of it.” What are some things that an organization can start to do to incorporate more of a wellness perspective into their work?
Peter: Yeah. I mean, I choose strategies based on how they can incorporate health and wellness into their organization. One is just around policies and procedures, the nuts and bolts of what they offer employees. A lot of organizations, to some extent, do that. And it might look different for different organizations. [It might be] flexibility around work schedules, or providing a meditation room, or setting aside time during the week when staff have, almost professional development, set aside time for an hour to read a book that you wouldn't normally have a chance to read, purchasing healthy snacks and water. Those kinds of things. I've been talking with other coaches and organizations — and this tends to be larger for-profit organizations where employee assistant programs, a health and wellness coach is available to the organization. You don't see that in the nonprofit world, but that's one thing that I would love to see: making that available to more non-profit organizations. Then the other area that I think about is organizational culture. The policies, procedures, the nuts and bolts of things are a little easier to implement where organizational culture and shifting that is probably more long-term. It takes a different intention. As part of that, I think about organizations that somehow build that into their strategic plan or their vision of how they are as an organization. Then once you do that, I think you can begin to think about the practices that are going to support wellness in the workplace and help you move along that path to create an organization that's going to sustain individuals in a healthy way.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting. When you talk in terms of steps that an organization can take, there are those more nuts and bolts-y things, but even when they do that, I worked in a larger organization that had some resources and they ended up setting aside one room, what had been a small conference room, and made it a napping room, but the culture did not support anyone taking a nap during work.
Carol: I have to admit that I would sneak down, look around and try to make sure that no one would see me. Like I hadn't slept the night before, so I really was falling asleep at my desk. It wasn't like I was getting anything done or being productive anyway, but I remember just feeling like I had to make sure that no one saw me as I snuck in.
Peter: That's a question of culture, right? People don't feel comfortable doing that.
Carol: I think that the more successful thing that they did — and it was interesting because it went beyond just that one organization, there were a number of different nonprofits in the same building. Obviously that was when we were all not working from home, but all the different organizations hired a yoga teacher to come and offer a class once a week. And it had a great response, and it was great because we actually met people from other organizations, and there were probably some other ripples of meeting these other people who were in the building, who did similar work that you might not have met otherwise through the yoga class. So that went a lot better than the nap room.
Peter: Yeah, it's interesting. At the beginning of the pandemic I had requests to do what essentially were 30 minute, virtual self-care sessions which were a great way to bring people together, and for staff of one organization, it was an opportunity to come together in a way that wasn't trying to figure things out or working with all of that craziness going on. But interestingly enough, now that we're seven, eight, nine months later, people aren't doing that as much. It's like we've moved past the self care stage.
Carol: Yeah. Out of the crisis where we felt like we really needed to pay attention, but what are some other things that you're seeing organizations do, with so many people working remotely or working from home in terms of supporting employee wellness?
Peter: I think people are still trying to figure that out. What I've been hearing lately is the tiredness of being on Zoom or being in virtual meetings and people trying to figure out how to minimize these or work in some other way. That's a big one, and then [working] around people's schedules, they've got PR for many of the people that have kids at home. They're working, but they're also being parents and teachers. So organizations and individuals are trying to figure out how to create the right flexibility and support for individuals that are in these different kinds of situations.
Carol: Even thinking about when you really need a video meeting where people need to be on the computer and when you don’t. [For me,] when I'm just talking one-on-one with someone, I'm mostly making phone calls to just not have extra screen time, and then you could — depending on the situation — take that call as a walking meeting. So that's one simple way that I try to incorporate that during the day.
Peter Lane: I also like thinking about how long meetings actually have to be. If you schedule it for 30 minutes, or an hour — even if it's the same topic — if you scheduled it for 30 minutes, it will probably go for 30 minutes. If you schedule it for an hour, it'll go for an hour, most likely. Just being really conscious of why you're meeting and how much time is actually needed for that. I also love the idea of the walking meeting. I know that's not for everybody, I find it a little bit of a challenge, but I've been in meetings and talking to people that do that. And I think a great way to break up the day.
Carol: Yeah. So one thing that I always do at the end of each episode is play a little game where I ask you a random icebreaker question that comes out of my hand and a little box of icebreakers, so the question for you is: if you could go back in time, what's one thing that you would tell your teenage self?
Peter Lane: I would tell my teenage self that everything will be okay.
Carol: I think that's good advice for all of us right now.
Peter Lane: You will be okay.
Carol: Yeah. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you, what's emerging in your work?
Peter Lane: Well personally — and I didn't mention this — I'm getting married in a couple of weeks, so I'm looking forward to that. But that's obviously on the personal side, professionally next year, generally I'm just really interested to see how things progress in terms of the pandemic and what impact it's going to have on organizations. Obviously everything hasn't played out yet in terms of [whether] we go back to normal, or if there is some new normal, and how that is going to impact organizations and the work they do. So I'm interested in that. And then I've been talking with a colleague about putting together a leadership support/coaching series, a cohort that we would offer together and be able to incorporate health and wellness coaching into that. So we'll see.
Carol: That sounds awesome. How can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Peter Lane: You can check out my website, peterlanecoaching.com, and my email is email@example.com.
Carol: Well thank you so much. Well put those links into the show notes so folks will be able to get access to them.
Peter Lane: Great. Well, thank you, Carol. This has been a lot of fun and a great opportunity to talk about the work that I love. So thank you.
Carol: All right. Thank you.
In episode 12 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Woolfe, discussed include:
● The importance of an interim director for organizations
● The process of transitioning and the strain that puts on an organization
● The importance of having a plan in place for when your leader leaves
● Growth mindset with Boards
● What the role of the Board and the role of the staff are in an organization and how those differ
● The importance of taking breaks for yourself
Elizabeth Woolfe is a lifelong nonprofit professional with expertise in affecting strategic change and facilitating growth for organizations, as well as in assisting boards and organizations through transitions.She also has strength in building philanthropic relationships between nonprofit and for-profit companies, facilitating collaborations, and program development. Her particular areas of interest are interim leadership, management of organizations and boards, strategic assessment, organizational development, board functionality, and relationship building.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Woolfe: Thanks. It's great to be here and please call me Liz. It's shorter.
Carol: That’s true! So, what drew you to the work that you do? What's the why, what motivates you in the work that you pursue?
Elizabeth: Well, my usual answer to that is that I've spent my entire career, except for one very brief foray, in the non-profit space, and I generally view that as a calling, I don't know that I ever questioned it.
I think from early on, I had a desire to do things that helped people and to do work that seemed - whatever this word might mean to people - meaningful. And I was never pulled in any other direction, but to do that work. It was a path that manifested itself and I followed it. Once I got the hang of it, I was able to make decision after decision to stay on that path. I just don't know that it was ever a real decision to embark upon that.
Carol: That's interesting. Cause I started out my very first job working for a small business that helped people get on talk shows. It was this very interesting little niche that I was working in and found that I was pretty good at that promotional aspect of getting our folks on shows, but after leaving that, it was a conscious decision for me to move into the sector because I thought, if I'm going to use these skills to promote causes, I want to promote causes and support things that I really believe in, and help people in a way that I think is really functional, away from ‘whoever pays the bills is who you’re going to promote.
Elizabeth: I used to call that the dark side. There were periods of time where I had this thought that, ‘oh, I will go to work for an agency or a for-profit company that has a foundation or something like that.’ And I would play around with that and I would maybe look for different positions and maybe go on an interview. But I would walk out of the interview going, ‘I don't want to do that. This doesn't sound like a fit.’ And without really questioning it - my company is called intuition consulting and it was named that because I feel strongly about following your intuition. And it's something that I recommend to others, but I also take my own medicine and do for myself. And I guess I was not questioning it because I just did that from the start.
Carol: So feeling that alignment, which is great. You serve as an interim director for organizations as part of your work. What would you say organizations gain by engaging an interim?
Elizabeth: Well, the transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next phase of their existence. So I can say that I do a lot of interim work as the interim, but I do a lot of transition and succession planning with organizations. And I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason, especially with a founder that might have been with the organization for a very long time, it's a big change. It's like when you bake cookies, or when you make pancakes and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, if you hire someone too quickly, that first pancake just might not turn out that well, and that's unfortunate because then the organization is once again plunged into a period of transition, which is not really healthy or something I'd recommend. I think interim work is extremely interesting, and transition work in general is really important to understand with organizations, especially small or mid-sized organizations that require some degree of stability to anchor them with many of their functions.
Carol: I think taking that time, And, and it's hard. I think often, organizations want to jump to find that new person as quickly as possible and be on to the next thing. But you don't want the new person hired to be an accidental interim - almost like a rebound - executive director. I think that taking the time to have the organization experience a different style of leadership is important. It seems like organizations can also deal with things or have harder conversations with the organizations to get them ready to set the next person up for success.
Elizabeth: The statistics about new leaders following a founder coming in and not being successful are really shocking. So the interim can be that bridge very successfully for all of the reasons that you just outlined. It's like a palate cleanser, it's a good thing to try.
Carol: What are some of the things that you observe organizations experiencing when they go through those transitions?
Elizabeth: Well, I've managed a few big transitions with several of my clients and I think the most important one is really what the trickle-down effect is. It's not really just where it's happening, it's in every relationship that the organization has. I think oftentimes that's a second thought or maybe not even thought of by the board, or by the departing leader, or by whoever is left to understand that everyone who interfaced with this person is affected by this person's departure. I'm focusing on a founder or a CEO, just because that's really the most formative of those relationships, but when you have relationships with funders, when those people have those relationships that are very closely held, there's a lot of insecurity and instability that can affect the organization adversely if it's not handled correctly. Oftentimes, that's the best reason to have an interim because that person can focus on those relationships. Otherwise it's a board member, or maybe a secondary staff person that might not be as comfortable relationship-building and relationship cultivating as the leader was, and it could be really debilitating for the organization.
Carol: So, what are some things that you would say help those major transitions go better?
Elizabeth: Well, I think giving it the necessary amount of time [is important]. It's not a quick process. I usually say from start to finish, the succession-building process should be very conscious, and it's not a question of, ‘we want to get rid of our leader.’ It's really more, ‘we want to prepare for the eventuality that we may have to replace this person for whatever reason.’ There are good reasons, and there are not-so-good reasons. There are things that can be planned for well in advance, and unfortunately there are emergency situations that come up that, if you have no succession plan, even a rudimentary one can be even more upsetting and more traumatic for the organization. I think that this is always something to consider and that it builds in that amount of breathing space so you can say, ‘oh, wow. Now here we are at this crossroads, but we've planned for this. We know that we can manage it using these steps, whether we use an interim or not.’ Replacing someone doesn't take five minutes and I almost always recommend using a search firm, especially for a CEO or any C-suite leader, because it's almost impossible to manage a search at that level and continue to do regular necessary work. With one of my clients, the entire process from start to finish took eight months. That was not an unusual amount of time, it was pretty much the norm. But, if that were without an interim and without a search firm, it would probably take twice as long.
Carol: So, thinking about always keeping succession planning front and center, what are some of the things that need to be part of that succession plan, and what are the elements that organizations can do when it's not an immediate need?
Elizabeth: Well, first I have a really good idea of what that position is and what it does from the very tiny day-to-day to the bigger picture, where does this position sit in the organizational structure? Obviously a CEO is normally at the top of the organizational structure but, in reality, what does this person’s responsibility involve? Do they manage all of the external relationships with funders, or is that something that is co-managed or taken over by a development person, or someone else? Those relationships are really key, as I said earlier, and I think what's really important is an understanding of how engaged the board is with the organization and with that person - usually the leadership - what kinds of relationships do they have and can that relationship be managed in a different way? Once you identify where all of these succession-related issues lie, what's most important, is really a thorough understanding of what the connections are. It's always nice to be able to say, ‘under these circumstances, this is the protocol we will follow.’ You can create that. In real life, things happen and times are crazy. I know an organization that just had their CEO announce that they were retiring in January and, this person would stay until they found a replacement and then COVID hit. All of that had to be rethought, because it wasn't really the right time for there to be another major transition, which is fine, and luckily, the CEO was able to say, ‘yes, I will postpone my retirement for at least another six months.’ You have to be flexible and nimble and many smaller and mid-size organizations are capable of that, which is the good side of things.
Carol: I think having a plan sketched out, you may not follow it exactly, but you're not starting from scratch and you're not having to think through it all as you're also having to start doing it all. Also, I think a lot of people, when they hear succession planning, they mistake it for ‘I need to identify who I'm grooming as my successor.’ and it really isn't that, necessarily.
Elizabeth: No, it can be part of it. I mean, if it's an organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that, and most often in larger organizations, yes, that is more typical, but in smaller organizations, there's not enough people working there for it to really be an appropriate way of organizing succession. And I encourage organizations to have a running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in a search, or someone who they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough to the work that is done there, that they could be helpful in identifying who could be next. It's nice to have an advisory group at the ready in case they are needed. Sometimes some of those people could be appropriate candidates.
Carol: Right, So we've talked about boards a little bit, a unique aspect of nonprofits is the role of a board in the governance of the organization. What are some common mistakes that you see boards making maybe in dealing with succession or more broadly.
Elizabeth: Do we have longer than an hour? I could go on for days with that. Boards are one of my favorite things and that isn’t always an easy thing to say. I do actually enjoy board work. It's so interesting and multifaceted, and as you say, it's an integral part of a nonprofit, or it should be an integral part of a nonprofit’s organization and functionality. Specific to succession the board is really key and it's a time where I've seen boards really rise to the occasion which is great. And I've also seen boards that can't, and it's not over succession or transition. It's really a deep-seeded functionality or dysfunctionality as the case may be, but that situation of change exacerbates one or the other, or brings it to the forefront. To go general, boards have a great deal of responsibility. If they choose to exercise it, if they don't choose to exercise it, the organization can still function, but the board does have, at a minimum, a set of responsibilities in terms of guidance and in terms of advising. And some boards go a lot deeper and some are more strategic, but at the very least, they are more objective eyes on what the organization does, and what direction the organization is headed in, and how well the organization fulfills its mission on all of these different levels.
Carol: You talked about founders and oftentimes a founder will be a very dynamic personality and all of that is what helped them create the organization and then build something, which then creates the dynamic of a board that's really following that person and not necessarily in a real partnership. So when that founder leaves and they have to step up, it's not the way that things have been done in the past and can be harder. And that makes that transition particularly fraught.
Elizabeth: I couldn’t agree more. That's so common, and I think if [the board] doesn't view themselves as ever evolving, then they don't ever get to the point where they escape that, regardless of what happens on the leadership side, even when a founder leaves and new leadership comes in. If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. That can be a real recipe for disaster, because then you have someone coming in new and fresh as a leader who wants to take the organization to the next level or in a different direction, and the board is stuck. When I do board-coaching and board-development, it's really to view boards on an ever-expanding continuum, where they go from this working board as they commonly are in the very beginning, and very much like sheep following the leader to something that becomes more appropriate for a later iteration of the organization where they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills. That's why board rotation, board transition, and cultivating new board members is so important because the people that are present at the birth of an organization are not necessarily what the organization needs 5, 10, or 15 years in. And sometimes, you'll have that very dynamic leader that everyone's following, and in other cases, it may be a group of people around a kitchen table. So they've always had a collaborative relationship, but then when they do bring on staff, everybody's been so involved [that] letting go and allowing staff to start doing the work that they need to do, that can be challenging. At the same time, I think that boards have an opportunity to then look at other ways to be involved in the organization besides being on the board, [although] when it's small, that may be the only volunteer role and that board does everything, as a working board, or volunteer board, or in an all-volunteer organization, but then to start differentiating, what we actually need from a board member and if you want to be involved in this organization because you are very excited about and passionate about environmental issues, but you really love getting your hands dirty and doing that stream monitoring, then it's fine. Go do that. It's hard for people to then say, ‘well, but we've always had all those people on the boards. We do it differently,’ or worse that this is what we've always done, it's not successful anymore, but this is what we've always done. So we're just going to keep banging our head against the wall because this is all we know. It's very hard to crack open that door and say, ‘look, there's a whole world out there for you. You could be this, and you could be this, and you could be this, except for the fact that you're looking in your rear view mirror, or living in the past. I've experienced all of the scenarios that you just went through. Some in my consulting life as a CEO myself, and also as a consultant and as a coach, and they're all very big and hairy problems. Every board is different. The chemistry is different, the environment that they're in is different. So as a consultant, you have to visit that with fresh eyes all the time. That's why I always say that even the incremental successes are to be celebrated because boards are so hard to move. And it's very rare that you find a board that welcomes this ongoing change and development with open arms. It's much more the case that they are really change-averse and, even when they understand the rationale, they are so terrified to let go of it. It's fascinating, really.
Carol: I'm curious if you had someone who was thinking about volunteering on a nonprofit board, what's important for them to understand as they step into that role?
Elizabeth: Well, I think unless they've had previous successful experience, there's a lot of people who come to a board, and they've been on a board before and it may not have been a healthy board and they carry all of this baggage with them. So their expectations are very different ‘cause they either want it to be the same, ‘cause they don't know any better, or they want it to be different because they do [know better]. Depending upon where they're going, that may or may not be the case. I like to get them all fresh when they haven't been on a board before and mold them to what they should be. Those are the most successful ones. But I think in terms of advice, always be aware of the fact that, even though there is a line between what the organization does day-to-day: their programs and how they execute them, and what the board's responsible for: the governments, and the guidance, and the strategic-level stuff. Be aware of that difference, but also be aware of where the gray area is, where those two things can meet and really be productive. Because you can't be too far apart, but you can't be too close together.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that?
Elizabeth: Sure. So it's really a question of keeping the board from micromanaging what the day-to-day of the organization should be. In other words, the board should be responsible for this 35,000 foot view of the organization. What is the strategy that they're going to implement moving forward, how are they going to execute it in the bigger sense? It's the program staff and the CEO and the development staff's responsibility to mold that out of the lump of clay that they're given and make that into programs, [and figure out] how much they have to raise in order to do them, who's going to run them, who they’re going to serve, and how they’re going to measure their success. There's a big difference within those two worlds, but where they peacefully coexist is in having these kinds of conversations of translating what this strategy is. So we want to get to this, we want to serve this many people, or we want to execute our mission by creating a program that brings an awareness of what we do to more people. That's it for the board. They can outline that strategic framework and hand it over and have really productive conversations about what that means. But once that happens, they don't need to be on top of the program staff saying, ‘well, what does the program look like?’ ‘Who's going to teach that?’ ‘What days are you going to do it?’ That's not the board's role.
So, every episode, I play a game at the end where I ask you a random icebreaker question. So... if you could have any celebrity to be your best friend, who would you pick and why?
Elizabeth: It's either Oprah or Bruce Springsteen, but I don't think I'd be able to talk if I were with Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, because, well, first of all, I've looked up to her and, and followed her for so long.
I feel like I am already her best friend, although she doesn't know me. We read the same books. I almost always read - even sometimes before she picks them - from the book club. We have a lot of common interests. She's funny. She likes all different kinds of food. She loves to travel. She's really interested in helping people. I just think we have tons of things in common and would make great best friends.
Carol: That's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Elizabeth: So right now I'm right in the middle of a little interim CEO gig that I'm doing for one of my clients. That will be concluding at the end of October. Then I'm hoping to take a little bit of time off because I need it and deserve it. And I think self care is very important. I always encourage the CEOs that I coach to make sure that they take good care of themselves because it's not an easy job. It's sometimes a very lonely place. So I would hope that I will be able to do a little bit of work, but a little bit of relaxing between the end of October and the end of the year. As far as next year is concerned, it's really interesting because I never really know. And for 2021, I really, really don't know because nobody can predict what's going to be happening anymore. So I am keeping myself pretty open and not letting that freak me out at all. I’m figuring that whatever comes along will be something that I will be able to consider and I’m not worrying too much about it right now. I don't think stress and worry really get you very far and I've trained myself to really not worry about it.
Carol: That's great. So how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Elizabeth: So, my website is intuitionconsult.com, and I'm pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. I'm very interested in connecting with people for all different kinds of networking and mentoring-type things. I would encourage whoever wants to talk to me more to please reach out.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate our conversation.
Elizabeth: Thank you, I had a great time.
In episode 11 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Nyacko Perry, discussed include:
BoardSource 2017 research on demographics of nonprofit organizations - Leading with Intent report.
Nyacko Perry utilizes a systems-thinking approach to assist individuals, community groups, and organizations, in creating more inclusive cultures. Her decade long career as a transformational change agent includes national and international facilitation with non-profit, corporate, and government agencies. Nyacko is the founder of Yin Consulting, a collaborative focused on personal, organizational and systemic healing.
She is the Organization Development Partner at the much-anticipated Comfort Kitchen, a restaurant, community meeting space, and a food incubator dedicated to fostering collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and community engagement. Nyacko also serves as a member of the Advisory Board for the Action Boston Community Development, Inc. Roxbury/N. Dorchester Opportunity Center. Nyacko holds an M.S. in Organization Development, with distinction, from American University. She is also a 500-hour professional level yoga teacher, an Afro Flow Yoga® certified teacher, and weaves her mindfulness expertise into her consulting work.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Nyacko, it’s great to have you on the podcast.
Nyacko Perry: Thank you, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So, give people some context, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say is the journey or the path that got you to where you are now?
Nyacko: That is quite the question. Just for background, I do mostly organizational healings. I'm interested in the wellbeing of people at work, and ultimately doing a process of healing. So addressing and having accountability around some of the past experiences, and making a path forward so that people can feel safe and be the most productive people they can be at work. What brought me to that is quite a journey. I come from a yoga background to start. I was very invested in healing in that regard. Healing for myself, and first for taking care of myself, taking care of my body and my mind, and that quickly grew into ‘how do I facilitate this for other people?’ So I've been a yoga teacher for several years, and after being a yoga teacher for several years, I left and became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana for two years. That experience was the most eye-opening, incredible experience of my life, both exciting and awesome, but also painful and different. Through that experience, I was working with a lot of Government Agencies. I was based in a local village and there were three local schools that I was supporting with what we would consider life skills, which were mostly around the spread of HIV and making sure that the curriculum invested in that and making sure that the students understood what HIV was and how it was transmitted and so forth.
Through that experience, I found that one, I fell in love with my community. I also got rather disillusioned from some of the institutions that were located there, both the nonprofits, as well as some of the government agencies I was working with. Unfortunately, their approach was ultimately, numbers, very numbers based, very centric towards, ‘you know, what are we doing and how is this making us look good?’ and it really didn't resonate with me. So I had a big internal process going on because I felt like there's so much potential to do our full work if you are in collaboration with the community, if you are really acknowledging how they want to go about their own process of doing this powerful change within their system. I became very interested in that, both during my Peace Corps service, but then afterwards, of course. so after that time of being with them, I thought, ‘okay, more so than actually doing direct service, I'm very interested in the systems that hold this direct service. So, that's where I started and looked into the American program that I believe we both did Carol. Then, going through the master's program became very interested in how to bring back this healing component and this idea around people's wellbeing at work. So all of these different parts of my identity and my experience came together through the master's program. I actually had the pleasure of thinking about a theory around organizational healing from the lens of the chakra system. The chakra system is basically energy centers that live within the body.
They're known in yogic philosophy, they're also known in African practices and traditions as well. I was very interested in considering organizations to be human systems, then how do we apply all of these theories we have about the human experience in the context of work? So that's how I got into all of the things that I got into.
Carol: That's awesome. Say more about your organizational theory of healing and, how do you define that, and can you dig into a little bit more about how the theory shows up when you're doing work with groups.
Nyacko: Absolutely. For me, I'm a very feeling person, so the first thing that I do when I go into an organizational system is I'm like, what do I feel inside? Do I feel tension? Do I feel joy? Do I feel like apprehension? and so I very much come from an emotional place and healing. What I consider healing is being in touch [with] emotions, but healing takes many, many shapes and forms. So from my perspective, it's really about accountability. I think that's where healing can truly come through. So if an organization gets data that says ‘actually you have been unfair or you have done some things that have caused harm,’ acknowledging that, and really making that be part of the next strategy. [Saying,] we've heard you, we're going to make shifts. We're going to acknowledge what we've done that has caused harm. We're going to actually make some shifts and involve you in that change process. That's what I consider to be healing, but what I've noticed through the work is that every organization will bring about healing in their own way. For some people, healing can be messy, it can be tough. It's where the leader, for example, has to really take in all of the feedback, and sometimes that within itself is like, ‘ah, that hurts.’ or, I had no intention of doing that. I think this is something that happens all the time where the leader has a very different experience from those that are on the lower levels of the system. I didn't realize that making this pay cut and making this particular shift had an actual emotional effect on your life and your ability to come to work and to thrive. I didn't realize that.
So there's a lot of acknowledging what's gone wrong, but it can honestly be a messy process I've found, but I think for me, it's really about how we create a safe container where people can be honest, and that is usually the first step in a system. A lot of times when I go in, it's very clear to me that nobody's going to really say how they feel, because there's such tension, there's such a tightness and so I open the floodgates, but then the floodgates are open and who knows what could happen. Usually it ends up pretty well.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by creating a container?
Nyacko: Yeah, even in how I practice. So if I'm leading a group, the first thing I do is a check-in. For some systems, that's very normal behavior, checking in [with] ‘how is everybody?’ and when we're checking in, we're not just checking in on ‘how was work today,’ but [also,] ‘how are you?’ and from a facilitator perspective, I want to understand if somebody is coming in with stress, with some tension, with something that's going to influence how they're showing up here. So that gives me more of a background of what's going on.
So, one thing is check-ins, which for some systems is radical transforming where people are like, ‘wait, you're asking me how I am versus how productive I was today?!’ It can be a jarring shift. So I think that that's the first step for me in terms of setting a container. Starting with, of course, the check-in, but also in how I'm holding the space.
I'm not intending to be an authority when I hold space, which for some people is difficult. Because they're like, just tell me what to do and also, this is what I consider to be presence, you know, you're a boss and you come in and you tell us how to do things. So I come in with a radical, different way, which is: ‘hi, I'm here. I'm interested in how you feel.’ I want to support you in this process, I'm not an authority, I hope you feel safe here. So that's how I show up and that really opens where people are like, ‘oh, whoa. I can talk to her,’ especially when it comes down to the data collection process, I tend to do very well in that area because people feel more comfortable with how I show up and how I hold space.
Like I was saying, there is this other extreme where for some people they're like, ‘I don't get it. Why isn't she doing it how I'm used to seeing,’ not to mention, I also don't always look like what people consider a consultant. They're like, ‘Oh, wow, you're young and black and have all these other parts of your identity that I’m not sure about. How do I make sense of you?’ I think that's also a strength that I have. I look different, I represent something different, I show up differently intentionally, and that helps to set a container for people to feel safe.
Carol: You talked about the messiness of the process. I think too often, people are lulled into the idea that if they do this seven-step process, we're gonna manage change, it's going to happen exactly the way we want it to. I often cringe when I hear the word change management, because to me it creates this illusion that it’s all manageable. Certainly you create processes to help people move through it, but it doesn't mean that it's going to be easy. There might be uncomfortable parts, but those are necessary if you're really going to dig into the real issues that organizations face.
Nyacko: Absolutely, it makes me think a lot about Bridges theory. Just that in between when you're trying to mitigate the change process, you actually have to consider that there's this in-between from what you were, to what you're going to be. That middle space is going to determine whether or not you're actually successful and you need to use it, work on that, and think about how your employees are actually talking and feeling throughout this change process, especially for those that are like, ‘oh, we just let go half of our staff and we're merging with a totally different company and we have to completely change our culture.’ There are two cultures that are somehow supposed to merge together. There's going to be so much messiness, and even just acknowledging that and holding space for that in-between, is so necessary.
Carol: Yeah. That theory that you mentioned, William Bridges does a lot of work on transitions. When I'm trying to explain that to people, I often say that in our American, White-dominated culture we always want to be onto the next thing. So we want to go from point A to point C and forget this in-between space where we're not quite there, not quite here, not where we were, but not quite there yet. I think everyone's feeling that right now in the midst of the pandemic or in this massive in-between space and the discomfort that that creates with folks.
Nyacko: Yeah, it's quite eye-opening for all of us and even organizations, how they respond to the pandemic, and it seems like there has to be more attention to the employee experience outside of just how they are in terms of productivity, but how are they?
Carol: You talk about how radical that can be, to ask folks how they're doing. I was talking to a colleague at the beginning of the pandemic and she said, ‘my boss is suddenly incredibly vulnerable, and I don't know if I like it.’ This is very not normal! Many believe - if they're not in the sector - they have this idealistic notion of the nonprofit sector that it's shielded from dysfunctional culture and dynamics because of the mission focus and because of that good intention and trying to create change or good work in the world, but in my experience, too many organizations have very admirable missions for change that they want to see. Yet the values that undergird those missions just don't show up inside the organization and how they're treating people. What have you observed within nonprofits that you've worked with?
Nyacko: A lot of what I'm seeing is the people that are doing direct service are having a really challenging time - especially around their income, more often than not, they're the least paid person, but they're the people that are dealing with the direct work. Then there's a whole disconnect between the direct service people, and the people that are really high up. The other disconnect in that area is race. Race is something I see very quickly, it's like direct service. That's where all the people of color work, and then as you go up, it's just all white. I find that disturbing, what is that about? Then also in terms of who they serve, more often than not, it's people of color, people that represent a disenfranchised identity, and that's not reflected in the leadership of nonprofits. So, there's just this huge disparity and disconnect that I don't understand and I feel troubled by.
Carol: Yeah and it certainly mirrors our wider society, so it's not like the sector at all is separate. It's all within those systems. So can you say more about how you see that culture of white supremacy showing up within the sector?
Nyacko: Yeah, it's this idea of helping. This idea of who we think needs help, and more often than not the people who need help are people that represent disenfranchised identities. Why is it that we don't have those [identities] represented in leadership? I see a huge problem in that, but honestly, my friends that are in nonprofit, when I've worked in nonprofit, it's almost like it's normalized where the whole board is white, the whole leadership is white, [so] they don't know what's happening. They're not connected to the actual experience of the people that they're serving, but they get to make the most important, most drastic decisions.
The people that are closest to the pain should be closest to the access and closest to helping to make decisions - and I'm pulling from my congresswoman, Ayanna Presley - that's the thing [that] people who are representing the identities should be a part of the solution and should be a part of making those major decisions. I rarely see that, and I think we know statistically, it's not there. I think it's like 0.05%.
Carol: Yeah, I don't know the exact stats, but I definitely know I can look them up. BoardSource has done a lot of work on this and [on] measuring and calling for more diversity, and the needle not shifting since they've been measuring it for the last 15-20 years or so. Do you see places where that isn't the case though, where those dynamics have flipped?
Nyacko: I mean, probably occasionally but it's also in our structures. Like our structures in general, our businesses are based on white supremacy. All the way from our educational systems, our business structures. I was listening to the 1619 project, I don't know if you've listened to that, it's an amazing piece by the New York Times that really looks into the history of slavery, and also the legacy of slavery. One major piece is that a lot of our business structures are based on how the plantations were run. They had very complex systems. They had middle management and ideas about productivity, and reports about productivity, how to best feed a slave and have them be as efficient as possible. They were extremely successful in that. So much of our wealth in America is based on that piece of our history. So when I think about structures in general, it [makes it] difficult to live in society and to work in any system. The rationale that I tell myself is that I'm here to dismantle and to support the transition and the change. I think it's very important to acknowledge where our structures come from, where our nonprofit structures come from. If these parts of our communities weren’t disenfranchised, we wouldn't have a use for nonprofits. So how is this an industrial complex? How is it that we're dependent on people being in need and perpetuating that?
Carol: Then [there’s] the sector being dependent on the little bit of wealth that is put into foundations and then the little bit that they give out each year. Where did all that money originate from? Here we are in a field in terms of organization development that wants to be of service and wants to help. where do you see, you know, how do you see, doing that in a way that does heal rather than doing harm?
Nyacko: Step one is acknowledgement, but that's the trickiest part. That's the part where, for example, when George Floyd was murdered, so many people, so many organizations, wrote these very blanketed responses, and there was no accountability in the statement. There was nowhere where we wanted to acknowledge what role we have played in perpetuating this system, and the steps that we want to make to dismantle it, to make some shifts within our organization. It's rare that we see that.
We have seen it in some circumstances, but more often than not, there's a resistance that you've been acknowledging it. It's almost like “la-la-la-la, we're good.” When really, just name it. Name it and start there. I think that's step one, and then once that's open, involving everyone in your organization in the process. Knowing that more often than not, the leadership is not fully aware of all of that goes on in the organization, [and] is not fully connected to the people that are being served, lifting up the voices from the rest of the organization, as well as lifting up the voices of people that are being served by the organization and bringing those voices to the forefront and allowing them to help direct whatever change process you're planning to make, I think that that's the first step in healing.
Carol: So you also work in the food industry as a partner with a Comfort Kitchen. What type of type of change are you trying to make in that space?
Nyacko: First of all, background. Background on Comfort Kitchen - and I know they're going to read a little bit - my husband has been in the food industry for - I should say my spouse - has been in the industry for the last 15 years. He’s also an immigrant from Nepal and he had a terrible time of being someone that has an MBA who’s fully prepared to bring all of his skills to whatever business he was working for, and just being constantly demoralized and disrespected throughout the process. This is not a different story - this is the story. The industry is interested in exploiting people and chooses to target the most vulnerable individuals. So, 70% of restaurant workers are immigrants. and then a large portion of those are undocumented. So it's really vulnerable people that ended up working there. There's a lot of systems that will choose to exploit that. The whole design of the restaurant industry makes no sense. It's not actually a sustainable model, and that's why, when we saw the pandemic hit, most restaurants cannot go two weeks, let alone months, without generating any revenue. It just doesn't work. That's because the margins are small because it's almost impossible to get healthy food that comes from a sustainable source, and to pay your employees well, and actually sell your food at a fair price to your consumer. That's rare to see.
So, we would like to try and see if we can build something that is a little bit more sustainable on many levels. [Obviously,] the financial element, but also in how we engage with each other and how we engage with the community. So we're going into a community that I love called Upham’s Corner. It's right up the street from where I live and have lived for many years, and it's a community that has a lot of life. It has a lot of diversity. It's actually one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America.
So there's such a need to bring some love and be like, hey, we're here, we want to engage with you. Also with that comes the incredible cultures that are represented. So within my team: my partner is from Nepal, our head chef is from Ghana, his partner is from Portugal, and then we have a teammate from Ethiopia, and then second-generation Nigerian. So we're bringing a lot of different cultures to share within a neighborhood that's incredibly diverse as well. So a big focus for us is cross-cultural understanding. How do we start to see that actually all of these experiences are valuable, important, and also have similarities. One big similarity that we're finding is spices. Because of colonization and the spice trade, but you will find a lot of similar spice profiles across the world. So that feels unifying to us and really what is the forefront for us in terms of our menu and in terms of what we talk about. So what we're trying to do is we're trying to shift it off. Ultimately, because of the pandemic, huge shifts had to be made, and one major part of that is that we are developing a much smaller team, and that's so that we can be sustainable and do things differently.
Carol: Well, that sounds awesome. So, in each episode, I play a little game where I just ask one random icebreaker question. So I've got one for you here. What's the best compliment you've ever received?
Nyacko: Last night I had a friend over, and she said that I'm very smart and smart in a way that most people don't understand, but she gets it and she sees it. I have really struggled with my intelligence just because I have a learning difference. and so I've gotten messages throughout my life that [I’m] not as smart as other people are. Which are all stories, but when you're young, that can be very much embedded in the way that you think. I love to receive compliments around my intelligence, that feels really good. Thanks for asking.
Carol: Yes, absolutely! Without a doubt, you are incredibly insightful, smart, intelligent, and delightful.
Nyacko: Thank you very much!
Carol: So what are you excited about? What's coming up next? What's emerging in your work?
Nyacko: I mean, my consulting work is going well, especially because I think people are aware they need to tap into their emotions and address some of these past harms and make some transitions. So [I’m] definitely feeling busy in that regard, which feels really good.
Also we have a project coming up called All-In Consulting. I know you've probably mentioned it in other episodes and the other times that you've had people on, but I'm very excited about that. This idea of having a collaboration of people that are committed to doing specifically DEI differently - diversity, equity and inclusion - differently.
That to me feels like home. I feel like I'm at home in our network and our communities. So that is very, very exciting to me. Then Comfort Kitchen is coming, we have a ways to go, but 2021, probably around March-April is when we're thinking. So just plugging away on that as well and excited because I'm going to take my first vacation next week.
Carol: Awesome. That is part of personal organizational wellbeing that people take time off, prioritize that and really unplug. I'm a big believer - maybe ‘cause I grew up in Europe, I'm used to longer vacations and I think that's a way to go. Thi American idea that you can get away with as little time off as possible, it's just not living. It doesn't work. So how can people know more about you and get in touch?
Nyacko: Sure thing. You can check out my website at yinconsulting.com. That's Y-I-N consulting dot com. You can also learn about Comfort Kitchen, we’re firstname.lastname@example.org. Then if you are an Instagram person, comfortkitchenBOS is our name on Insta. So you can check us out there as well.
Carol: Alright, well, thank you so much. It was great having you on.
Nyacko: Of course. Thank you, it was awesome.
Episode 10: This week we’re talking to Heather Yandow.
We talked about:
• What gets in the way of nonprofits hiring consultants successfully.
• Why an RFP process is often not the best approach to having a great experience with a consultant.
• The trends we are observing in this time of disruption.
Scenario Planning: An article describing the process from MIT Sloan management school
Heather Yandow brings more than 20 years of experience as an outreach coordinator, coalition leader, project manager, and fundraiser to Third Space Studio. She helps organizations with strategic planning, board development, change management, leadership development, and going from good to great. She has also served on the Board of Directors of Democracy NC, ncyt: NC’s Network of Young Nonprofit Professionals, and the Beehive Collective (a giving circle). She is also the founder of Nonprofit.ist, an online platform for nonprofits to find the consulting expertise they need.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, as well as the Mission: Impact blog with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.